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May 1, 2011

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McQueen's successor, future queen's tailor

CATHERINE Middleton stepped out in front of Westminster Abbey at 11am on April 29, wearing a wedding gown designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

The gown, the details of which were kept secret until the bride stepped out of the Goring Hotel, was a magnificent ivory confection with lace floral detail.

Discussing the dress, Burton said in a statement that "It has been the experience of a lifetime to work with Catherine Middleton to create her wedding dress, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. It was such an incredible honor to be asked, and I am so proud of what we and the Alexander McQueen team have created. I am delighted that the dress represents the best of British craftsmanship."

Alexander McQueen's designs are all about bringing contrasts together to create startling and beautiful clothes and I hope that by marrying traditional fabrics and lacework, with a modern structure and design we have created a beautiful dress for Catherine on her wedding day. The last few months have been very exciting and an incredible experience for my team and I as we have worked closely with Catherine to create this dress under conditions of the strictest secrecy."

Burton has alreday spent her entire 14-year fashion career at the elbow of Lee Alexander McQueen. She was named as successor to the late fashion designer, as creative director of the London fashion house in May 2010.

A bright and earnest woman, she gave the impression of someone with plenty of her own stories to tell. She described herself as a sunnier sort than McQueen -- whose demons were plain in the sometimes macabre nature of his work.

She said she intends to keep building on the watchwords of the brand he began showing on the runway in 1992, selling a majority stake to Gucci Group in 2000. She rattled off the McQueen codes with ease. "Definitely tailoring, incredible dresses, embroideries, prints - and the sexiness," she said. "A lot of designers are afraid of sex. Lee was not. It's about a piece of clothing you put on and you know you're wearing McQueen."

And in an attempt to explain why the house of McQueen repeatedly denied over the last few weeks that it had any involvement in the design of the dress, Burton said: "Understandably, Catherine has been very keen to keep the details of her dress a secret, which is every bride's prerogative, and we gave an undertaking to keep our role confidential until the day of the wedding."

Burton continued: "Catherine looked absolutely stunning today, and the team at Alexander McQueen are very proud of what we have created. The dress was just one component of a spectacular day, and I do not think it is appropriate to comment any further beyond saying that I personally am very grateful and honoured to have been given the opportunity to work on this project..."

Born in Cheshire in the north of England, one of five children of an accountant father and a music teacher mother, Burton was fascinated with clothes from an early age, despite what she describes as a "fairly traditional background" and her attendance at a "rather academic" school. "I always drew dresses," she said. "I remember loving Richard Avedon's early Versace campaigns. I used to plaster my whole walls with them when I was a kid."

Her interest led her to enroll in the renowned London fashion school Central Saint Martins, where she specialized in print design and was recommended by a tutor to get some work experience at McQueen before graduation. It was 1996, and McQueen was an explosive talent on the London scene, on the cusp of being recruited by French luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton to become the new couturier at Givenchy. "I went and this was when Hoxton felt like the middle of nowhere," Burton recalled of the East End London neighborhood where McQueen was based in the basement of a nondescript building. "It was a very small team."

Indeed, "Lee did absolutely everything: cut the patterns, chose the fabrics. I remember him teaching me how to put a zipper in," she recalled. "You had to know exactly how a pattern was cut, exactly how a print was laid out, or else you could never go forward."

Landing the Givenchy contract was a godsend for McQueen's makeshift, cash-strapped company. With a laugh, Burton recalled that "the first thing that happened was that we could actually get central heating, and chairs that reached the table," describing a comically high pattern-cutting table that reached their chins when seated.

McQueen hired Burton straight out of school in 1997, and her design responsibilities grew organically, ultimately extending to menswear, accessories, footwear and other categories.

Considering herself shy, Burton said she was content working in the shadows as design director of women's wear. When McQueen took his own life in February 2010, she initially resisted the idea of succeeding the founder, but was won over by the prospect of honoring and building on his legacy.

She excitedly describes "massive" opportunities in handbags and shoes, and for the entire McQ second line, produced by the Italian company SINV SpA since 2006. "When you look at all of Lee's early collections, there's so much: the torn denim, bumsters, lacquered lace, the tire prints," she said, calling all those elements "raw, very London and very McQueen."

That said, Burton said she planned to reinforce the positioning of the main line as "the jewel in the crown, and it has to remain beautiful and precious." She cited strong demand for couture pieces, including special designs done for private clients.

A self-described workaholic, Burton said that in spare moments she loves to take in art exhibitions, particularly photography, and read. "That makes one switch off," she noted.


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